Peter Thiel on entrepreneurship: Three contrarian ideas for going from 'zero to one'

Chelsea Vail | Oct 15, 2014

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Peter Thiel, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist, spoke to a sold-out crowd at Chicago Booth on Wednesday about how to find success as an entrepreneur. Thiel, whose new book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, Or How to Build the Future stresses the importance of ‘one of a kind’ ideas, shared three contrarian ideas for going from ‘zero to one.’ In his own words, “Copying others takes the world from one to n, adding more of something familiar. But when you do something new, you go from zero to one.” Here’s what Thiel thinks separates the truly transformational ideas from the rest.  

They’re monopolies.

It’s Zero to One, not advice on how to build a better mousetrap. “Most people think capitalism and competition are synonyms… You want to be doing something that no one else is doing,” Thiel said. He explains this as the opposite of the ‘Anna Karenina principle.’ Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But the opposite is true for innovation: “All happy companies are different; every unhappy company is doing the same as other unhappy companies.”

They’re based on secret truths.

There are three kinds of truths, according to Thiel: The conventional kind that everyone agrees on; mysteries; and secrets that can be found out. “There are more [secret truths] out there than meet the eye,” Thiel said, objecting to the cynical attitude that only mysteries remain. “There are a lot of secrets left,” he said, indicating that those who seek will find—and transform the world with their insights.

They’ll develop the ‘developed world.’

We talk about the ‘developed world’ and the ‘developing world,’ but there is an unproductive bias in that phrase, Thiel said. “When we say we live in the developed world, we’re saying things are done—and we shouldn’t accept that.” He characterizes progress as coming in two types: globalization and technology. Globalization is needed, because that’s the way in which we can replicate good ideas for the benefit of more people—but technology is where we will hit upon the ideas that are truly revolutionary.

The event was sponsored by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the Stigler Center for the Study of the Economy and the State, the Social Enterprise Initiative, the Chicago Innovation Exchange, and UChicago Careers in Entrepreneurship.